italian versione 

Liberal Democracy


Giovanni De Sio Cesari

The concept of liberal democracy sometimes refers to a political regime that not only respects the two defining elements of democracy (pluralistic elections and freedom of thought and expression) but also upholds the democratic rights of citizens. Hence, liberal democracy is contrasted with illiberal democracy (sometimes curiously referred to as "democratura"), which allegedly does not respect these rights. In the latter, there would be a dictatorship of the majority, where it might even be possible to persecute LGBTQ individuals or ethnic minorities, perhaps to the theoretical extreme of the majority decreeing the extermination of the minority.

This seems like an interesting distinction, but we need some clarity, especially from an epistemological perspective. In the 19th century, the term "liberal" was used to describe those who sought only the constitution while preserving the monarchy (Cavour), as opposed to democrats (Mazzini), who aimed to overthrow the monarchy altogether. Practically speaking, the outcomes were not very different since the king would lose effective power anyway, but they indicated different attitudes toward the status quo and the social structure of society. Later, the term "liberal" came to denote supporters of economic liberalism (capitalism) as opposed to socialists, who advocated various degrees of state intervention (communism, social democracy, and various third ways).

However, none of these meanings apply to our discussion, and it should be noted that all democratic constitutions enunciate principles such as equality of citizens and religious freedom. Thus, in theory, illiberal democracies do not exist. We need to look at the actual reality instead.

But what are the indispensable democratic rights beyond freedom of thought and voting? It is assumed that there are self-evident natural rights that cannot be disputed. Echoing a concept dear to the Enlightenment, it is said that one's freedom ends where another's begins: more clearly, one is free to do whatever they want as long as their actions do not limit others' rights—in concrete terms, do not harm others. But it is easy to see that if an individual's action has no consequences for the community, why should any authority (democratic, autocratic, theocratic, dictatorial) concern itself with it? It seems obvious that if an authority is concerned with an action, it is because it considers it important for society in some way.

Democracy is not a place where one can do whatever they want, but only what is not prohibited by law, which is true for all political systems. The criterion of not harming others is universal: I can listen to the music I want as long as it does not disturb others. Therefore, I can listen to it without bothering my family, the condominium, or society in general. This criterion is always valid everywhere and for all political regimes; it does not uniquely characterize democracy. In any regime, democratic or not, laws establish the limits within which an individual's actions are free. I do not believe there are significant differences in the list of crimes provided.

What changes fundamentally is that in democracies, laws are established by elected representatives of the people in a climate of freedom of thought and expression. In particular, non-democratic regimes, especially the dictatorial ones of the last century (fascist and communist), suppressed freedom of thought and expression and intended to mold citizens' thinking according to an ideology considered the only true and just one. These are indeed defined as totalitarian regimes.

It is not true that one can think that an individual is master of themselves and can do whatever they want: they can only do what does not harm others, and this is concretized in laws (or rules in general). The norms can then be enacted by elected representatives, a king, a dictator, religious representatives, or often a combination of these factors. The difference lies in the judgment of what and within what limits is acceptable. Every regime starts from different principles, but one common to all is that the rules concern activities of social relevance.

The problem, however, is that it is not easy to conceive of an action that has no consequences for society. Even what I eat can influence the economy, the balance of payments, healthcare expenses (if it harms me). If I smoke, I force others into passive smoking, and if I fall ill, I burden the healthcare budget, and so on. It is thus a compromise that varies according to circumstances: maximum freedom in times of prosperity, minimal in difficulties (e.g., food is rationed during wartime).

Above all, individual freedoms depend more on the prevailing culture, linked to the historical moment and material and spiritual needs, than on political regimes. What truly characterizes democracy is that everyone should be free to advocate the point of view they consider right and appropriate, not necessarily to do everything they consider right and appropriate.

Let's take some examples of modernly accepted rights often considered characteristic of democracy: abortion, homosexuality, gender equality.

It is said that abortion is a self-evident right for women, so prohibiting it means we are not in a democracy. But it is NOT so. The point is whether a child is such at the moment of birth, conception, or at an intermediate period. For thousands of years, and for centuries even in democracies, the prevailing idea was that one became a human being at conception, so abortion was considered murder and a serious crime. Modernly, the idea of an intermediate period has prevailed (in Italy, nine weeks, for some reason), and thus within this limit, it has been legalized.

In reality, the idea of the conceived being as a human being persists in much of the population and is not at all universal even today. Homosexuality has been considered not only a shameful vice but also dangerous for society, thus a crime for millennia: in feudal medieval times, absolute monarchies, democracies, fascisms, communisms (Stalin's persecutions and Maoist Cultural Revolution), practically by everyone until 50 years ago.

In 1950s England, which was a democracy, Alan Turing, the founder of computer science who greatly contributed to England's victory, ultimately committed suicide because he could no longer endure judicial persecution due to his homosexuality, considered a serious crime by the laws of the time. Then the mentality changed (in the West) and it was seen as a simple sexual variant. Much of our own population still continues to be intolerant of homosexuality. Democracy has little to do with this change, which also manifests in non-democratic countries.

The equality of the sexes is spoken of as a principle of every democracy, also referenced in our constitution. Yet in this area, for millennia, and for centuries even in democracies, the roles of women and men were distinctly divided: women took care of children and the home, and men handled everything else. Suffrage was extended to women in the first half of the last century, long after its establishment. Strangely, in Switzerland only in 1971. In Italy, it was introduced during the Fascist era in purely formal elections, and from 1946 in true pluralistic elections. Consider also the institution of the dowry: it consisted of assets owned by the wife but managed by the husband, under the belief that women were not capable of managing them. This institution was abolished in Italy only in 1975.

A similar discussion can be made for all other rights deemed natural and self-evident, but for thousands of years and for centuries, even in democracies, they were not considered such. Now, in reality, if we give a particular interpretation to these so-called natural rights (and why natural?), we assert a principle that negates the essence of democracy, which is freedom of opinion and expression.

In concrete terms, for the laws of the state, good is what the people at a given moment consider it to be. But in a democracy, it must be possible to have opinions different from the majority, opinions that one day could become the majority. To return to the previous example: abortion was once considered a terrible murder, now it is considered lawful, but it must be possible to express the opinion that it is a terrible murder, an opinion that one day might again become the majority.

There is no objective criterion to decide the line between actions that affect or do not affect society. Judgment changes over time and space with the ever-changing mentalities of society. Moreover, particular interpretations of these rights are given, more or less extensive, and it is claimed that this interpretation is the ultimate and definitive truth, an objective and indisputable fact that characterizes democracy. In reality, the WOKE mentality ends up being a denial of that freedom of thought and expression which is instead the fundamental foundation of every democracy.